Summarizing Dark Souls to someone unfamiliar with the ‘Souls’ series would likely bore them into avoidance. A third person RPG set in a dark fantasy (open) world where you fight Undead soldiers, knights, dragons and other various monsters in medieval-esque towns, fortresses, chasms, caves and castles. There is nothing special about the game at an initial glance.
The astonishing popularity of Dark Souls obviously dispels this idea, but I always wondered if the game would have been overlooked had there been no initial momentum (possibly generated by the predecessor ‘Demon Souls’). There is no way of knowing, but I am glad that scenario remains hypothetical as I would have likely missed out on a sublime experience.
I felt that straight reviewing Dark Souls would be slightly unnecessary as it’s pretty much widely accepted as a classic. The brief description above gives the mechanical and aesthetic context of the game and if that so far has held your interest then I can immediately recommend Dark souls.
Here though, I’m giving Dark Souls a Slow Burn. Just to relax and jabber on about elements of the game that I found stood out and stuck with me weeks after completion.
Prepare to Die
Dark Souls has a reputation for being difficult, so much so that the subtitle ‘Prepare to Die’ was added when released on PC. It is true that you will experience many deaths, but to say the game is simply ‘Hard’ would be a disservice to how finely the developers have crafted the challenge. It’s as ‘hard’ as any new mechanic or skill set is to learn. Failure initially comes from unfamiliarity, but after multiple encounters you begin to learn the capabilities of your character and of the enemies. Competence slowly begins to build; dodging, attacking, and defending become more and more reflexive . You begin to realize that there are rules to combat – rules that your enemies must also follow.
You will be punished for ignoring these rules. Every move you make can potentially lead to your death – strike to soon and you will be open to attack, too late and your enemies will hit first. The same applies to your foes – understanding when an enemy has committed to an attack gives you the opportunity to dole out the punishment.
There are almost no exceptions to the rules of combat – even when you greatly out-level an area. Underestimating low level enemies will leave you surprisingly dead. You can still be overwhelmed by numbers or a single enemy may connect with a multiple hit attack that you erroneously felt wasn’t worth blocking – resulting in the sudden disappearance of most of your health.
Dark Souls’ infamous difficulty is really a deception. Yes, you will likely die many times, especially in the first area’s, but the Grim Reaper is your most effective teacher.
Each death reveals more about the enemy, such as information on how much time it takes to attack and recover, which of your defenses or abilities it was able break through, how fast you must respond and the effectiveness of your gear. If you believe one of these aspects may be an issue, you make the change and try again.
Every death resets all enemies (except bosses) and leaves your collected souls (used as currency and experience) at the point of death. Respawned enemies will continue to provide experience, and as long as you recover your souls you will find that death has made you stronger and every failure made you wiser. When you eventually defeat the challenge you will genuinely feel as if you have earned your victory.
The developers ‘From Software’ appear very confident in their ability to kill you over and over and have you coming back for more. They know how to design fights so that you understand the mistakes you have made. Other games would give obvious prompts or tool tips on how to defeat a challenge when it sees you struggle, but Dark Souls lets you figure it out yourself. The developers respect the player’s ability to work out and overcome these challenges, and are very confident in their ability to create them.
A hollow world.
You may remember a moment in your childhood where you wandered into a seemingly forgotten area – such as an abandoned building, quarry, etc… a place where human activity was evident, but had long ceased. Now, moss and webs cover everything and the only noticeable signs of life are the echoes of your footsteps. This same abandoned feeling is evoked throughout Lordran, the land in which Dark Souls is set.
Buildings, bridges and roads have a feeling of lost glory and whatever spark prompted their creation has long expired. Nothing living has touched this place in a very long time. Populated almost entirely of undead, the humanoid enemies you encounter carry an aura of stolen purpose, existing purely because there is no alternative. As undead they cannot even achieve final peace and habitually guard their posts with no aspirations for change.
Its all fantastically unsettling. Everything feels slightly off, creatures and undead are commonly seen moving throughout the environment but the world still seems lifeless. The game’s use of the term ‘hollow’ is perfect.
Enemies are carefully and deliberately designed; many convey the game’s theme of death and hollowness, while others appear to feast on the ever decaying world. These particular creatures – the ones that seem to survive by absorbing whatever scrap of organic matter is available, created genuine feelings of disgust. Some resemble horrible growths, while others look as if they evolved to survive in putrid, diseased conditions.
This theme of disease and rot is present throughout the entire area of Blighttown – an enormous underground cavern where the environment will kill you just as easily as the enemies. You are required to traverse narrow wooden platforms placed incredibly high and any lapse in concentration will likely have you falling to your death. The ground level is covered in toxic sludge that will constantly damage you and every enemy can poison with their attacks.
The Cragspiders which inhabit Blighttown evoke the aforementioned feelings of disgust. They possess large round bodies with many spider like legs. Two thin arms protrude from the front, ending in claw like fingers. Four transparent dragonfly wings are attached to the back and though they appear too small for the body, they successfully allow the creature to hover.
Everything about the Cragspider seems wrong and unfamiliar. The insect like limbs contrast greatly to it’s meaty body and it’s movements are unsettling to watch. It’s design achieves this strange contradiction of looking unnatural, but still appropriate to it’s environment. The theme of disease and toxicity is firmly established in Blighttown and by the time you encounter this enemy you will instinctively fear it’s sting more than it’s bite.
The Choas Eater is another enemy that inspires repulsion. They are encountered in Lost Izalith, in a sewer like area with toxic water covering the floor. They are a mass of eyes, tubular limbs and circular teeth. They spew toxic gas and can consume you whole – killing you if left in their maw for too long. If you resist you are spat out. There is a disturbing efficiency to their design. Every limb and organ looks to have evolved purely for the function of consuming and processing organic material of any quality. As a whole it resembles a piece of industrial machinery mixed with a deep sea parasite.
You missed a spot
Dark souls is a large game in terms of potential places to explore. I say ‘potential’ because accessing every area is by no means required to complete the main story. I discovered that I had missed entire zones after completing the game. I had overlooked many side quests, NPC’s and bosses and to be honest – I was absolutely fine with that. I partially felt disappointed that I had missed out, but this was ultimately overcome by the fact that my play through was my story. The events I had missed were simply not a factor through my perspective and nothing was diminished. The story is deliberately ambiguous anyway, and I found it a fun exercise to hop from wiki to youtube listening to player’s interpretations of the events.
The fact that it took 70 hours to complete while ALSO missing a considerable amount of content says something. The experience was still fulfilling and there is always the option of new game plus if I ever wanted to return and experience the overlooked stuff.
The game is not flawless, sometimes the mechanics of the game will bug or unintentionally work against you. For example when knocking an enemy off a ledge while targeted , your character will continue to track them and you can get sucked down without consciously moving. These resulting deaths are a source of great frustration, especially during a boss encounter on which you were making progress.
Some of the first boss encounters are incredibly difficult also, mainly because players will typically be low level and unfamiliar with the game. This inexperience is not taken into account and these fights can create a considerable wall to progress.
The game is also unplayable on PC unless the DSFix is applied and a joypad used. Figuratively ‘unplayable’ as the game will run, but it will look awful and will require more limbs than the average human possesses to control with a keyboard.
There was a moment during my playthrough that made me realise how deeply immersed I had become – immersed in the world and it’s mechanics. I found this moment to be representative of how everything comes together in Dark Souls to create it’s unique experience.
One of the first bosses you encounter is the Taurus Demon, a massive bull/man demon creature with an enormous axe. You are at an immediate disadvantage as the encounter takes place on a bridge. The narrow space greatly restricts your ability to dodge the wide powerful cleaving attacks and you risk getting blocked by the railing or accidentally leaping to your death.
After getting killed many times I eventually learned the movements and attacks of the boss, understanding when to strike, when to dodge and importantly, how to dodge – it is possible to duck through the legs of many of the larger bosses. It was a punishing fight until I had figured out the rules of combat and as with most other boss battles, my heart was racing as the killing blow was struck. Relief and satisfaction hit so hard that I had to take a moment to settle down. Until that point, every attempt began with anxiety and the belief that I would be killed, but now, as the boss collapsed, it all felt worth it.
The moment came 55 hours of gameplay later in the Demon Ruins. After resting at a bonfire I proceeded to cross a nearby bridge, but made the mistake of not scouting the opposite side. Seconds later I saw another Taurus Demon charging directly at me. After a brief moment of surprise (and terror) I made a decision. Instead of quickly returning to the safety of the bonfire, I held the sprint button and charged right back.
I had become intimate with the world and it’s rules since the first encounter with the Taurus Demon. I knew what I could and could not handle.
I found that I could complete new area’s without having to experience so many deaths, that I was quicker to grasp what new enemies were about. I stepped into new area’s with confidence as opposed to recklessness. Up to that second encounter with the Taurus Demon the game had been teaching me and making me wiser. I had lost count at how many times I had died to this beast on the first encounter, but this time I had killed it on the first attempt.